Better: Interview with Jonathan Brackley & Sam Vincent (Co-Creators/ Writers/ Executive Producers)
PHOTO: Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan
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Could you please give an outline of what Better is about?
Sam: Better is the story of Lou Slack (Leila Farzad), a corrupt police detective who has been working for a very notable gangster for 20 years and our story begins when something very traumatic happens in her family life and begins the process of a moral change for her. It leads to her realising that she wants to undo all the bad things she's done and start to lead a better life. But this will mean coming into direct conflict with the man she's worked for, for 20 years, and a man that she loves like a brother.
Please could you tell us what some of the themes are in the show?
Sam: Better explores a few themes, but the topmost one is morality. It is about good and bad. It is the exploration of a bad person trying to become good and how difficult that is. And if that's even possible, really, and what good and bad means, how people feel about themselves in different ways. We've come at the theme of morality from every way we possibly can in this world.
How can you tell if someone is good or bad or evil, or is it not black and white?
Jonathan: What we want to explore in the show is exactly what it means to be good or to be a bad person, and how can you even tell? And particularly with Lou as ostensibly a ‘bad’ person, how does she go about trying to become better? How do you even do that? Is it as simple as starting to do good things, to do altruistic things, or is it about a personal discovery? Does she have to admit it to herself or apologise to other people? Those are the kinds of questions that we're really interested in exploring in the show.
Sam: I’ll add to that, everybody's criteria for whether or not they, or somebody in their lives, are good or bad is wildly different. You know, we all see it through our own perspective and we're trying to capture that in the show somehow. Within the first few minutes of this drama, you are introduced to a woman who is simultaneously a loving mother and a loving wife, a charismatic friend, a funny person, out for a few drinks with some friends, and yet also somebody who does something which is quite unspeakable in moral terms. We're trying to present this character to the audience and ask them the question, ‘is this a good or a bad person?’ And each person watching will need to make their own decision about Lou.
Do you guys think there is a villain or a hero in the story?
Sam: In terms of heroes and villains, we're trying to take a more complex approach with this show. When you look at the show from the outside, you’ll think that Lou Slack (Leila Farzad) is the hero, and the villain is Col McHugh (Andrew Buchan), the gangster. And certainly, in some ways they are. But at a deeper level of the story, ultimately what becomes clear is that in some ways Lou is the villain of her own story. You could even say the hero of the story is actually Lou's rising conscience and the true conflict really in this show is not so much between Lou and Col, because he has his own story happening, but it’s between Lou and her own conscience. Her conscience is in many ways the true antagonist of the show.
What was the inspiration behind the story?
Jonathan: The inspiration for this story came a few years ago when Sam and I were kicking around some ideas around a gangster show. But what we came to realise quite quickly is that it was a bit too simplistic, and we wanted to get a bit deeper into the ideas of why do bad people do what they do?
Sam: And on the flip side, why do good people do what they do? And so, we eventually developed the idea to incorporate a much more juicy and complex character on the side of the police who is a corrupt police detective, and how that person sees themself as ostensibly a good person while still doing bad things and then comes to realise that they're actually, possibly a bad person, and how do they go about correcting that?
Sam: Redemption is not an uncommon theme in stories but usually, it’s like a lightning strike moment. There’s somebody bad and then they make the decision to be good and lightning strikes, and then from that point on, they're good. And Jon and I, in talking about that, we said, well, wouldn't redemption for somebody truly bad be not a single moment and an about turn in how they see the world, but a long, painful struggle against their own rising conscience and how they tried to bargain and wrestle with their conscience. Once we had this notion of redemption being a long, hard road rather than a single moment, that's when the story really started to flow.
What do you think makes Better stand out from other police dramas?
Jonathan: Better is a crime drama, but we've been trying to do something a bit different in that we're avoiding the procedural elements of a show like that. It is about a police officer and a gangster, but it's not a good guy, bad guy story. It's not cops and robbers. It's a very much a character based drama where we see these people in a 360-degree view of their entire lives.
Sam: Better is absolutely not a police procedural, certainly not a whodunit, because the person who ‘done it’ is the hero. They are in one person and that's very clear from the first moment. It really is about exploring who she is, why she did these things and how she's going to turn back if she can.
This isn't the first-time you have worked together. Can you tell us about your writing process?
Jonathan: The writing process is a lengthy one. It always starts with an awful lot of talking. Talking, chatting, coming up with little nuggets or concepts here and there, and once we've got enough of those, it tends to congeal into, oh yes, this is an idea that will support a fully-fledged TV show, and from that then we’ll always start with character.
Jonathan: So, in this case it was Lou, and Col came alongside. We talk about those and build out the story from those characters and what they would do. And from there it's a lengthy outlining process. Going through the whole series, developing the stories, and then we eventually get to writing those scripts. As we're writing the scripts, they inevitably develop and change quite a lot as we’re writing.
It must be exciting to see Lou and Col come to life on screen, played by Leila Farzad and Andrew Buchan. Tell us about the casting process and the choices behind those two actors.
Sam: In terms of casting, we were pretty unified early on that Leila would be such an interesting choice. Everybody on the team and involved with the decision loved her performance in I Hate Suzie and we just thought she would bring something really fresh and unexpected to what is hopefully a very interesting and rich character. And she just has so many qualities that help with that. Leila brings an effortless charm, magnetism, humour, all qualities she has as a person she brings to her performance, which really acts as an effective counterweight to the bad things that we see Lou doing in the misdeeds and really helps shape this person into a complete rounded character.
Sam: With Andrew Buchan as Col, he is such an incredibly intelligent actor, and you can see what he's doing at a microscopic level. There's one particular moment in the show where Lou is talking to him, and we wanted Andrew to portray Col realising that she's lying to him. And when we watched it back you can actually see the exact moment that Andrew does this. So, he's an actor with exceptional control and his performance as Col is really fabulous. We couldn't be happier with the two of them and all of our cast. There are so many new and interesting faces. And then there's also the likes of Anton Lesser…this cast really is sensational.
Can you tell us about the character of Owen, Lou’s son, who is played by Zak Ford Williams.
Sam: The character of Owen, Lou’s beloved son, is absolutely crucial to the story. The nature of the series means that Owen has a disability following on from the events of the first episode and we always wanted and needed to cast an actor with a disability, but what we wrote in the story was quite specific. So, we ended up coming across Zak, who was found by our brilliant casting director, Sonia Allen, and the nature of his disability did not tally with the character’s, but we collaborated and spoke to him, and we took medical advice and we were able to change the character's journey and the scripts to make it fit and make it work. And we're so glad we did that because it meant that we could have Zak, who is the heart of the whole thing, he's the reason this whole story exists.
Anton Lesser plays Vernon in this series. Can you tell us about his role?
Jonathan: Vernon is the ghost of Christmas future. He's what Lou could be if she continued down the path she is on. He is a wonderfully corrupt, immoral, cynical, disgraced, former police officer who lives completely alone in squalor with this mangy old dying cat. And to get somebody of Anton's class to play this role is an absolute gift.
How did Lou manage to live this double life for so long, physically and mentally?
Sam: Lou has been able to lead this double life because she's very clever, she's very skilful, she's extremely careful, like Col is. She's not too greedy or rash. Neither of them is psychotic. So, they're kind of perfect criminals in that way. But the main reason that she's been able to do this for this long, is because she has been lying to herself.
Jonathan: A large part of that is that she doesn't believe that she's a bad person. She believes that what she's doing is right. She's managed to convince herself and negotiate with her conscience to understand that what she's doing is for the greater good. But purely by the fact that Col gives her information and she uses that information to catch other bad people, and in return she's able to nudge Col in the direction to manage him, to try and pull back on some of his more criminal tendencies. In her mind, she's used this relationship to make things better for the city and the people of Leeds. So there's a lot of sort of complex compartmentalisation going on in Lou's mind.
What is the boiling point? What ultimately makes Lou decide it's time to get out of this double life?
Jonathan: The catalyst for Lou coming to the realisation that she needs to do something about the life that she's leading at this time is the illness and the near-death experience of someone close to her. That's the trigger for this journey that she goes on over the rest of the series. But it's not a Damascene conversion. It's a very instinctive feeling she gets about how she has to do something; she has to change. And it's only through her journey over the entire series that she comes to realise that the reason why she has to do it is quite possibly because she's a bad person and she needs to understand and atone for that in some way.
Why did you base the series in Leeds?
Jonathan: It was very important for us to set it somewhere with its own distinct identity. Somewhere that could become sort of a character, a part of the show in its own right.
Sam: Our executive producer Jane Featherstone has connections to Leeds, and so she suggested it, and it was just perfect. It's such a vibrant, cosmopolitan, interesting characterful city. Once we decided to set it in Leeds, it was about opening the whole thing up to as many cast and crew members as we could find to imbue it with that authentic flavour of the place.
Do you have a favourite location from the shoot?
Jonathan: We filmed at such a wonderful array of places in Leeds over the shoot. Plumpton Rocks up near Harrogate was an amazing location to shoot. We shot there twice, once in the day and once again overnight, which serves as the finale of the show. It's such a striking, wonderful place with these amazing rock formations and a manmade lake which felt like an evocative place to set the emotional finale of our show.
Sam: We also used a former disused police station as our production base, which was quite an amazing place to have as your base, there were cells in the basement, which were fairly eerie, having not been used for 15, 20 years.
What journey do you hope audiences are going to go on when watching the series?
Sam: We hope audiences are massively compelled by the central moral journey that Lou goes on in this story. There is something innately compelling and fascinating about these issues of good or bad. There is a definite universality to this story, even though the examples we're dealing with are extreme and it's a very dark thriller full of high stakes, and blood is spilled and not everybody makes it out, but those themes underneath that layer of drama touch everybody's lives.
From Monday 13th February, episodes will air weekly on BBC One at 9pm, with all episodes also available to stream as a boxset on iPlayer.
Source BBC One
February 8, 2023 5:00am ET by BBC One